MINSK -- The KHL All-Star Game attracted a lot of attention throughout Europe, with a number of dignitaries flying into Minsk. Driving through the city the day before the game, there was a sense of celebration of hockey in the capital of Belarus. KHL flags, game posters met us throughout the city.
The newly constructed Minsk Arena was ready to welcome 15,000 hockey fans to witness the best players KHL has to offer.
Hockey fans in Belarus probably knew that Barry Melrose would be calling the KHL All-Star Game live on ESPN360 with Steve Levy. I have not seen this number of mullets anywhere since... well, the 90s.
The same goes for a number of vintage NHL gear people have in Minsk. Like a guy we met at our hotel who wore a Quebec Nordiques toque.
The first surprise was in the morning of the game when select media, including Puck Daddy, were invited to a press conference held by the KHL President Alexander Medvedev and Wayne Gretzky himself -- including the inevitable question of "Crosby or Ovechkin?" to the Great One.
Mark Messier, who also came to Minsk, did not join his former teammate. Here are a few quotes from the presser from Gretzky:
"First of all, it's great to be here. I have been shown tremendous hospitality by the people of Belarus. I've had outstanding time. I got a chance last night to skate in a pick-up game with Mark Messier and your great president [Alexander Medvedev], so it was a lot of fun. We had a tremendous opportunity this morning when we met over breakfast and got a chance to talk about the National Hockey League and, of course, the KHL. I don't know how old everyone is, but I think everyone remembers how exciting 1972 was with Canada against at that time the Soviet Union. And, obviously, we're very proud of our great players from Gordie Howe to Bobby Hull to Bobby Orr.
"It was the first opportunity to Canadian fans to get to see your great players from Tretiak to Yakushev to Kharlamov. I think at that time it was the first opportunity for the North American hockey players to get a European and a Russian influence into our game. And obviously for us, NHL players, to get a little bit of influence in international game.
"So, we met this morning and talked how great it would be to the National Hockey League and the KHL to have a mutual understanding and a partnership that would be positive to both Russia and the National Hockey League. And so as we said this morning, they're going to meet in Vancouver with the IIHF and the National Hockey League.
"Hopefully, for the sake of everyone, there can be an understanding and agreement that comes into play for both, that's fair to the National Hockey League and fair to the KHL. So, this gentleman here [Alexander Medvedev] has got his work cut out for him! So, hopefully, both countries and both leagues can come to a nice understanding."
As for the level of the KHL play, Gretzky said:
"Right now it's the first year that I have taken some time off and really having fun, enjoying being with my family. I have five kids from 21 to 6 years old. So, times at home have been fun for me right now. As far as the level of hockey, today will be a good opportunity for me to see these players play. I am looking forward to that. But the level of play in both leagues, the NHL and the KHL, is always improving. I think the influence of the Russian players -- Datsyuk and Ovechkin, Malkin -- has helped make the National Hockey League that much better. I am sure the KHL is the same way.
"The best players can play here, which makes it a better league. When we play at the Olympic games, it's always a great opportunity to compare countries... I know that Canadian people always like to see Canada play Russia."
Apparently, Gretzky has some Belorussian roots. Belarus will host the 2014 IIHF World Championships in Minsk and decided to include a silhouette of Gretzky on the tournament logo.
Wayne himself didn't know anything about it. "I need to have a few of these [pins]. They would be nice trading pins at the Olympics."
On bringing a message from the KHL to Gary Bettman, Gretzky said:
"First of all, I am not here for the NHL. I don't work for the NHL. But I think we have the same common goal to make the game of hockey bigger and better worldwide. And I think the NHL understands that and known that. And hopefully, when they meet in Vancouver, what we talked about today, when they sit down and negotiate that they can all come to an understanding that makes both countries and both leagues happy. At the end of the day, the game of hockey is too good of a game. And at this time where we are in the world, where the relationship now between Russia and Canada and the United States is so much better, it would be the best interest of the game of hockey that we can get a relationship between the KHL and the NHL. I think everyone believes in that."
Best player in the league: Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk or Crosby?
Gretzky said, laughing:
"I think we talked about it last night at dinner that if you picked Ovechkin, or you picked Crosby, you'd be very happy. And very lucky! They are both great players. And Malkin, of course. Whenever you win a Conn Smythe, MVP in the playoffs, you're at the top of everyone's list."
The skills competition and the KHL All-Star Game were held on the same day. (Full Disclosure: The KHL arranged for our travel to the game.) The arena was packed. It was interesting to see hockey fans from all over Russia wearing their team jerseys to the event. But the interest was not only coming from fans. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko attended the game, which actually made the media's work tougher due to constant restrictions. Other attendees included Igor Larionov, the IIHF president Rene Fasel, Vladislav Tretiak, Slava Fetisov, Sergei Nemchinov and Alexander Mogilny(notes).
Interestingly enough, Nemchinov and Mogilny wondered around in the crowd without being recognized by fans. A generation gap?
After the skill competition was over, both teams locker rooms were open to the media. That's where I managed to steal a minute from Jaromir Jagr(notes), Alexei Yashin(notes) and a couple of other guys. It was interesting that Jaromir Jagr was wearing a New York Rangers turtleneck, while Sergei Fedorov(notes) was spotted wearing Washington Capitals pants. This is what All Star captains had to say about the KHL.
First, Jaromir Jagr:
Q. Is this your final year in the KHL?
JAGR: "I am not sure. I have to wait until the end of the season. I have to wait to see what happens."
There were reports you were getting offers from the NHL last season and this season.
"First of all, you cannot receive any offers because you're under contract. A team would have to pay a lot of money if somebody found out. It's very strict in the NHL."
Could you catch us up on your last two years playing in the KHL?
"Nothing really special. I am just enjoying hockey, just like I have always been. It's just a different continent. That's all. Maybe the game is a little different, because it's played on bigger ice. You have to change your style a little bit. But if I decide to go back, it's not going to take me that long to get used to it."
How viable is the option of playing in the KHL for guys in North America who are considering coming over?
"You know what, guys who decided they want to come here, they shouldn't be very confident because it's not easy here. It's different hockey. There is a lot more skating. It's a lot tougher to score goals in this league. I was playing the last 17 years in the NHL. And it's tough."
Now, Alexei Yashin:
Q. Is the league trying to implement the best taken from other leagues, or build something unique?
YASHIN: "There is European experience out there. There is North American experience. Any league tries to take only the best to evolve, but always taking into consideration all local priorities. There is nothing wrong taking something good from other leagues. The main thing is to have sold out arenas, to have this buzz and to have a great quality hockey."
How does the KHL get players involved in making the league better?
"The league negotiates and works with the Players Association. All players are members of the association, but there are certain guys who are more actively participating in all of this, and are trying to work with the league to make hockey better. When the league asks me, I am always happy to help. And there have been times when I actively participated in this working process."
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The game itself was very entertaining. Messier, Gretzky, Fetisov and Medvedev did the ceremonial puck drop. Team Yashin tried to avenge last year's defeat from Team Jagr when the game was played in Moscow's Red Square.
But it was not to be. Jagr led his team to another victory. This time the score was 11-8. But the level of play was very impressive judging from comments from our North American colleagues from The Fourth Period, Montreal Journal and The Hockey News.